I have a confession to make. I LOVE cheese. Any kind. Hard, soft, cow, goat – you name it, I’ll eat it. Surpringsly, I don’t particularly care for milk. But the thought of never eating cheese again is almost impossible for me to fathom. I may actually have a bit of an addiction.
Turns out, that last statement may not be totally off the mark.
Dairy products contain a protein called casein. When that protein is broken down in the digestive tract, one of the metabolites is casomorphin. You might recognize the last half of that word – morphine – an opioid.
Cheese represents a very concentrated milk product. It takes about 10 lbs of milk to make 1 lb of cheese. That’s a lot of casomorphins arising from the digestion of cheese.
There’s plenty of controversy as to how many casomorphins are actually absorbed across the intestinal wall and how many end up crossing the blood-brain barrier to have an effect on the brain. But when directly injected into the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord of animals, casomorphins have been shown to act like crack cocaine.
Which might explain the sense of craving I experience when I see a block of cheddar.
The biologic effects of casomorphins are not fully understood and some of us may be more vulnerable to their effects than others. However, even in their absence, the fat and salt in cheese set off dopamine receptors in the brain and that’s addictive in and of itself.
The bottom line is that food is a bioactive substance. Everything we put into our bodies has an effect. And not just on the digestive system or waistline – but also on the brain. Recognizing this fact can help us increase our vigilance against over-indulging in counter-productive foods. If we’re aware that the cheese that’s calling our name is an addictive substance, chances are high that we’ll at least think twice before filling our plate with it.